Thursday, January 31, 2013

Want State Rep. Marty Walz's Seat? Read Here First

Yesterday, my state representative, Marty Walz, resigned her seat to take a position with the Massachusetts Chapter of Planned Parenthood. To say this news was a surprise is a massive understatement. Representative Walz was re-elected just this past November, and as recently as earlier this week she was active on her Facebook page, posting data to support a cause she believes is right for her constituents.

But alas, Representative Walz's seat will be open soon, which means a special election to fill her seat. Numerous would-be successors are contemplating a run to replace her. Some of them are my friends, which will no doubt put me in an awkward situation very soon. And the issues the candidates will address are equally personal to me.

Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "All Politics is local," and the politics of a Boston state representative cannot get any more local. A state representative's district in Boston includes fewer constituents than any other elected office (including Boson City Councilor).

To those considering running for Representative Marty Walz's seat, here are the big issues needing your immediate attention. I apologize that these issues have such as Boston tilt, given the district includes part of Cambridge, but it's the reality based on where I live.

1) A downtown neighborhood school.
With the recent attention to Mayor Menino's school section reform committee, and competing initiatives from Councilor Connolly, the first question to any candidate for Rep. Walz's seat will be: "Do you support the need for a downtown neighborhood public school?" Heck, given how almost everyone downtown wants a neighborhood school, the follow-up question might end up being the first question: "How are you going to make a downtown neighborhood school happen?"

A few neighborhoods that currently do not have a public school, the West End, Back Bay and Beacon Hill, all fit nicely and neatly in Rep. Walz's district.

Merely advocating for a downtown school overlooks the far more complicated and important challenge of making Boston's schools better, which I agree is probably the City's number one priority. If you build a local school downtown, how do you decide who gets to go there? Certainly it cannot just be for kids living downtown. And how does the provincial issue of a downtown school address the need to make all of Boston's schools more community-centric?

While the issue of schools is primarily one for the City and not the state, the local state representative can use the position to be a strong advocate for the community.

2) Potential elimination of the BRA.
Many progressive voters in Rep. Walz's district don't like the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They will eagerly vote for a candidate supporting the BRA's destruction. But the BRA isn't going anywhere, and the popular answer overlooks the larger issue of transparency with regard to Boston development.

If you really ask people why they don't like the BRA, they tend to point to transparency. The irony of course is the BRA exists to make the development design process as transparent as it can be, given that no project will earn 100-percent support of all affected constituents.

3) The casino.
In my opinion, there hasn't been enough talk about how a casino built in East Boston will affect economic activity in Back Bay. I saw first hand how a casino can have a dramatic, negative impact on local business, based on my formative years growing up in Connecticut. Per state law, only East Boston gets to vote on whether a casino should be built there, which dramatically under-represents the impact the casino will have on other Boston neighborhoods. Large droves of would-be Newbury Street shoppers will go to the casino instead of downtown. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain wrong. Therefore, downtown interests must be weighed within the casino debate, and the state representative for Back Bay and Beacon Hill needs to lead this advocacy.

4) Institutional expansion
Beacon Hill is surrounded by big entities hoping to get bigger. Suffolk University and Mass General are two examples. Some of my neighbors believe the mere presence of these institutions is detrimental to the neighborhood. Certainly left unchecked, their desires could run afoul to the best interests of residents. However, it would be equally detrimental if the institutions picked up and left. There has to be a balance.


I have been to many local political debates where the oratory stays high level. Candidates will uniformly talk about clean parks, safe streets and good schools. But in the upcoming special state representative race, the devil is in the details. Many voters will look for black and white answers to one or more of the issues above as a litmus test for their vote. I fear that many of my fellow residents will ignore the nuanced nature of each of issue, casting aside candidates who consider alternatives to a downtown public school, for example, or those who try to extend an olive branch to local organizations like Suffolk.

I admit it will be hard for me to vote for a candidate who supports the casino. But I will try to avoid a litmus test in this race. From what I am hearing so far, I might have several candidates to evaluate.

To the candidates, now is the time to study up.